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The Rhetoric of the Book of Judges.

The Rhetoric of the Book of Judges. By Robert H. O'Connell. Pp. xxi + 541. (Supplements to Vetus Testamentum, 63.) Leiden: Brill, 1996 ISBN 90 04 0104 7. Gld 245/$158-50.

The critical study of the book of judges, as of other biblical materials, has gone through a number of distinct stages. The older source criticism tended to work in terms of the editorial weaving together of originally separate continuous sources: Wellhausian Pentateuchal criticism is a classic example of this, and, indeed, as far as judges is concerned, some scholars, though not Wellhausen, did trace there the continuation of the J and E sources. A distinctively new phase was opened with Martin Noth's proposal that the Deuteronomistic History, comprising Deuteronomy to 2 Kings, should be regarded as a work independent of the Tetrateuch, in which a deuteronomistic author, on the basis of existing independent traditions, had created the first continuous account of the history of Israel. Although later given occasional post-deuteronomistic editing, this work was fundamentally a unified account with a consistent style, structure, and theology. As far as the book of Judges is concerned, Noth allowed for considerable post-deuteronomistic supplementation of the work, and indeed left inadequately treated some major sections, such as judges 17-21; yet he maintained that the work represented the creative result of a compilation from two major sources, one an account of the experience of various deliverers and the other the record of the so-called `minor judges', in Judg. 10: 1-5; 12:7-15.

This phase of the study of judges has been dominant for the last half-century and more, and has produced much significant development, by way of modification of Noth's views. So, on the one hand, it has been argued that the deuteronomistic edition of judges was preceded by a number of stages of development, including especially the creation of a `Retterbuch', a book of deliverers; on the other hand, it has also been persuasively argued that the deuteronomistic stage of origin of the book was not unified, but is to be understood in terms of at least two significant stages of redactional activity, the later of which, the so-called `nomistic' stage, is marked by an emphasis on the observance of covenant law.

In more recent study, to some extent resulting from a disenchantment with the results of historical criticism but certainly also influenced by developments in the broader field of literary study, the questions that have attracted attention have been different ones, to do with literary style and structure, and have tended to work with judges as a whole or with elements of the book, as if the book as a whole is a distinct literary unit, while setting aside issues to do with authorship, development, and historical background. The present work, though ostensibly concerned with what is held to be the book of Judges as it left the hands of its compiler/redactor, belongs primarily to this category.

O'Connell concludes his book with, among other studies, a clear and concise excursus on the history of the critical study of judges, in which he acknowledges the importance of recognizing `the broad consensus among scholars concerning the compositional strata of Judges' (p. 368). However, his understanding of the nature of compilation as a process which may have taken place over a long period of time with a `number of possible reworkings of the developing whole', and his evident preference for this over against the term `redaction', which is `better reserved for describing only those alleged systematic reworkings of the book subsequent to its initial compilation' (p. 347), allows him to take a very flexible approach in which `the question of whether Judges is entirely the product of a single compiler (as Noth thought) or of a compilation with subsequent redactions (as most others have thought) is of little consequence in the assignment of materials to the hand of a compiler/redactor' (p. 368). The work may, in other words, for all practical purposes be safely regarded as the product of a single compiler.

Again, the final chapter of the book, on `The Rhetorical Situation Implied by judges', argues persuasively, drawing together many threads which have run throughout the work, that the rhetorical aim of the book is not simply that of supporting the institution of the monarchy, by illustrating the social and cultic anarchy which prevailed `when there was no king in Israel', but rather, more specifically, that of promoting the cause of Judah and David over against Israel and Saul. This is not to say, however, that the work is to be dated in its composition to that crucial time when the question of the legitimacy of the rule of David was a major issue; rather, this is a literary judgment, an argument related to the place of the book of judges within the world of the text of Joshua to II Kings. O'Connell's thesis here is a persuasive one, that `the implied situation of judges' compilation/redaction was contemporary with David's rule from Hebron, prior to his rule of all Israel from Jerusalem' (p. 307). The concerns here are very much bounded by the text, despite the occasional notes referring to what must then be fairly peripheral historical and archaeological issues.

It is wholly in line with this that O'Connell asserts or implies, on more than one occasion, the essential unity of the compiler/redactor of judges, arguing in the opening chapter that the book is held together by a motif cycle, an interpretative framework, which comprises some twenty elements. The stories may indeed have had `distinct origins, traditions, forms, and functions in separate tribal enclaves of Israel prior to their assemblage into the book of judges', but `there seems little empirical evidence to support the view that there was more than one edition of judges. If there ever was a distinctive form of the cycle-motif used by an earlier compiler, a later redactor of judges so subsumed it under the final aggregate form of the cycle-motif that whatever lines that may have distinguished the earlier form from the later have disappeared' (p. 56).

This approach, which admits the disparate origins of the judges material and even allows for the possibility of more than one redaction, but which at the same time asserts that the `final aggregate form' is in the end the significant one from the point of view of the purpose of judges and the means by which it achieves that purpose, is foundational to the heart of O'Connell's study. In what must rank as a major contribution to a critical appreciation of judges, O'Connell provides a detailed structural analysis of each successive section of the work (with the exception, surely requiring explanation, of the sections on the `minor judges' in Judg. 10:1-5; 12:7-15), with the aim of uncovering its rhetorical concerns. This is a model of sustained observation and argument which, in adopting a structural approach rather than one in which individual accounts are examined as if they each comprised a series of successive scenes, elaborates the intention of the book of judges to express concerns about Israel's increasing failure to occupy the land and to maintain tribal cooperation in matters of covenantal law, both cultic and social. `The tribes' toleration of foreigners in the land and their propensity toward idolatry ... are serially exemplified in each situation that forms the main crisis in the deliverer accounts' (p. 229). No solution is identified, but already in the first prologue (1:1-2:5) it has been hinted that Judah and Jerusalem might provide the leadership to meet with divine approval. It is not, however, until the two-part denouement in judges 17-18 and 19-21 that it becomes clear that the rhetorical concern of the book is that all Israel should endorse a monarchic leadership, and one which emerges from Judah.

The rhetorical strategy of the book is to be described as one of `entrapment': by the end of the series of deliverer stories the reader has already decided the nature of true leadership in terms of the fundamental need for covenantal integrity; in the double denouement this leadership is then identified as monarchic, and, insofar as both prologue and denouement promote Judah at the expense of Benjamin, the ideal leadership is that of a Judean king (David) rather than a Benjaminite (Saul). That this is how the rhetoric of the book is to be understood is confirmed by the many points of narrative analogy which exist between the characterization of deliverers in judges and the characterizations of Saul and David in Samuel, in such a way that Saul's failure is portrayed as standing in line with those non-Judahite deliverers in the book of judges who are negatively assessed. The book thus serves as a paradigm by which to measure the performances of Saul and David in 1 Samuel.

Insofar as this major study of the book of judges might leave one, and perhaps particularly a more traditional historical critic, with a sense of unease, there are probably two areas where further discussion is desirable. In the first place, the view that there is effectively a single interpretative framework of judges, constituted by a network of some twenty recurring motifs, suggesting that `as the text of judges now stands, there may be little compelling evidence for identifying more than one compiler, the rhetorical strategist of the traditional materials contained within judges' (p. 27), must be given further testing. Even the table which O'Connell himself provides (pp. 22-25) indicates that there is considerable difficulty in including some material, perhaps especially the Abimelech story and parts of the Samson story, within the framework of the motif cycle. So, it is far from clear that the motif which appears in 17:6; 19:24, and 21:25 (do what is right in one's eyes), which is said to have been `deliberately diffused among accounts in judges in anticipation of its important role in the double denouement' (p. 29), can be used to link to the framework either the Abimelech story (on the basis of 9:16,19a) or the Samson story (on the basis of 14:3b,7b; 16:2ia,28b). There is a distinct possibility of a lack of control over the material when links such as these, which can be described only as weak and allusive, are treated in this way.

Secondly, while O'Connell's structural approach to the individual accounts has led to admirable results, there are instances where the plot coherence which he describes is not as securely grounded in the text as might at first appear. Once again, particular attention may be directed to the Gideon-Abimelech story. Frequently, Judg. 8:33-9:57, the Abimelech story, is regarded as a secondary supplement to the Gideon story, but O'Connell argues that the two were brought together by the compiler-redactor of judges who has presented the Abimelech story as the development and resolution of the themes of cultic disloyalty and social injustice which are rooted in the Gideon story itself. `The traces of the cycle motif that frame the Abimelech story are sufficient to show that the latter was designed to be read as a necessary prolongation of the Gideon account' (p. 170). Two things should be noted, however. First, as already mentioned, the traces of cycle motif elements in judges 9 are barely perceptible, and scarcely sufficient to link the Abimelech story within that framework. Secondly, the Abimelech story does not present itself as a resolution to issues already arising in the Gideon story; that is, the fate of Abimelech is not, as surely it otherwise would have been, explicitly described in terms of Yahweh's response to, or as a consequence of, Gideon's cultic aberration and social injustice. These could have been left as `loose ends' (p. 151), contributing to an overall rhetorical purpose in judges, so that the link established by O'Connell emerges more as his own way of holding very disparate material together than as a deliberate strategic connection established by the compiler/redactor.

The issues are not yet closed. The contribution which this book makes, however, is not to be underestimated. This is an excellent reading of the text, full of insight and information, in the following of which one emerges as a better reader of the biblical text.
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Author:Mayes, A.D.H.
Publication:The Journal of Theological Studies
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Apr 1, 1998
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